Deeper, better - building community & economy

In the face of energy shortage, of global warming, and of the vague but growing sense that we are not as alive and connected as we want to be, I think we’ve started to grope for what might come next. And just in time.
– Bill McKibben, “Deep Economy"

Fittingly enough, I picked up Deep Economy at a community book sale for a local library in Ithaca, NY. The book sale had an impressive selection and a "chat with your neighbor" kind of energy, and it wasn't long before I ended up in the business section trading recommendations with a couple of management professors from Cornell University.

“That’s a great book,” commented Jim, who researches leadership and ethics at Cornell. An older gentleman browsing nearby turned to join the conversation, shaking his head when he saw the cover, “Bill McKibben is a good writer. But he doesn’t know much about how economics work.”

Though I have never met McKibben, I don’t think he would have minded the comment much. McKibben’s 2007 bestseller isn't a treatise on how economics works, but instead explores a much more critical question: do our economics work for us? McKibben's answer is no, or more accurately, that our current economic models no longer serve us as well as they should, especially the driving paradigm that more is a good proxy for better.

Drawing on the research of leading economists and psychologists, McKibben points out that the economic more - more growth, more money, more stuff - does surprising little to improve our well-being once we pass a "basic needs" level of income. In fact, our unrelenting focus on "more" as the model for human development has damaged the very foundations upon which our economies (and societies) are built.

On the list of important mistakes we’ve made as a species, this one seems pretty high up. A single-minded focus on increasing wealth has driven the planet’s ecological systems to the brink of failure, without making us happier.

We spent most of our history using economics to satisfy basic needs, McKibben points out, so it’s not surprising that we’ve kept trying to apply the same approaches once those needs were met. However, McKibben argues, “We in the rich countries no longer inhabit a planet where straight-ahead Newtonian economics, useful as it has been, can help us.”

Our continuing use of “Newtonian” economics, I suspect, could actually be creating obstacles for the vast majority of the world who are still struggling below the poverty line. People who might still need those more-is-better economic approaches, but who also need us more affluent folk to move on and pioneer new approaches that don't destroy the planet. Instead, we could focus on building something that actually does make us happier: more community.

Farmers Market Conversations
Farmer's market: good eats and 10 times as many conversations link

The examples that McKibben explores - farmer’s markets, community supported agriculture, community news, co-housing, distributed energy, and others - all build on an overarching “economics of neighborliness”. They're about things that build community and things that benefit from community. And building more community, McKibben argues, will not only help reduce our contributions to the looming climate crisis but also represents one of our best ways to cope with the consequences of the climate crisis. In short, in an uncertain world of reduced resources, it's better to care about your neighbor than to build a bigger fence. It will probably make you happier too.

I have spent the last five years developing businesses that both draw on community and benefit community, but the majority of my work has been overseas and in poor communities. Deep Economy has inspired me to seek out models that could work in my own back yard.

So what are the businesses that are leading us in the right direction: towards "deep economies" that build well-being, interdependency, and - as McKibben puts it - a "durable" future? Can technology actually help us be better neighbors, or do we end up staying on Facebook instead of our front porch? Can the frenzy of investment and innovation in social networking actually build social capital in the place where it's needed the most, our communities?

Farmer's Market photo by Chas Redmond / CC BY 2.0